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A refugee from Somalia dances during a performance celebrating the cultural diversity of the graduating class during the Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins graduation ceremony in Kakuma, Kenya. (Angela Wells — Jesuit Refugee Service)

(Kakuma, Kenya) September 29, 2014 — A busy road in Kakuma refugee camp comes alive with shops selling vivacious Tanzanian fabrics, Ethiopian cafes serving espresso shots, families collecting remittances at Somali banks and a micro-version of a university campus offering online higher education to talented refugees.

Not unlike university campuses elsewhere, the Jesuit Refugee Service Arrupe Centre is equipped with a green space, a library and a computer lab. This past week the campus was even more vibrant as 25 students of the second group of Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins (JC:HEM) proudly celebrated their graduation on Monday.

Achievements celebrated. For three years the graduates studied in an online classroom at the centre where they were able to gain access to online courses from universities based in India, Spain and the United States. Studying education and business tracks, the students were conferred with Diplomas in Liberal Studies by Regis University in Denver, Colo.

The initiative, launched in 2010, aims to spread access to tertiary education to places 'on the margins,' or areas drastically underserved in the provision of higher education. 

The ceremony honored the graduation of the 2011 cohort, the second commencement celebration for JC:HEM Kakuma, with speeches from JRS International Director Peter Balleis SJ.; JC:HEM International Director Mary McFarland; President of Regis University, John Fitzgibbons; and JRS Eastern Africa Director, Deogratias Rwezaura S.J.

In addition to their academic achievements, their cultural diversity was also celebrated with traditional dance from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and South Sudan. Graduates also hail from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya and Sudan. 

Speaking to a crowded audience of JC:HEM board members, graduates and family and friends, Deogratias Rwezaura S.J. reminded the students of how far they had come.

"You wish to move from the margins to the forefront of community service; from being victims of circumstance to becoming peacemakers; from being recipients of your future plans to becoming self-driven entrepreneurs and educators; and from being satisfied with the status quo to wanting to learn to be of service to their people. All these dreams are at the heart of what it means to be men and women for others."

Obstacles overcome. In attaining higher education, the graduates have not been without challenges. Some are parents; others lived 14 km from the centre, about an hour's bicycle ride each way. Most continued to work while studying to provide for their families, and all had their patience tested with the slow internet connection in the refugee camp.

Now that they have graduated, they are prepared to face new challenges like finding ways of continuing their education or pursuing their vocations in or outside the overcrowded refugee camp.

Sylvain Rubamya Canga reminded his fellow graduates that they will face many obstacles on their road to success, but to remember, he "who risks nothing has nothing and is nothing," encouraging them to try to transform the world.

A hunger for more. This is useful advice as the graduates undertake community projects, or seek employment or educational opportunities. Sylvain was admitted to the Global Development Studies program at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Another graduate, Muzabel Welongo, will continue managing the community-based organization he established, Solidarity and Advocacy with Vulnerable Individuals in Crisis. Other graduates will work as translators for the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), as teachers at various primary schools or humanitarian staff in the camp, such as Lutheran World Federation, the International Rescue Committee and UNHCR.

The hunger for higher education does not end in Kakuma with this cohort. In 2014, more than 300 refugees applied to do a diploma in the JC:HEM program. After a rigorous selection process, 35 were admitted. Mary McFarland, JC:HEM International Director, indicated that in the near future the program may be able to accommodate more students in response to the growing camp population.

These admitted students hope to carry on a tradition set by the cohorts before them: to pursue the Ignatian mission of "magis,” to do more for one's self and society.

by Angela Wells
JRS Eastern Africa Communications Officer

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